Drama and Spectacle at Political Conventions

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(Host) The Democratic convention will begin next week, and people interested in politics will tune in, but commentator David Moats thinks it will be for the spectacle – not the drama.

(Moats) The drama of the Democratic presidential nomination took place last January in Iowa. That’s when John Kerry knocked Howard Dean out of the race. What we’re left with is the TV spectacle, designed to showcase the two Johns, Kerry and Edwards.

I was a convention watcher even before I knew what I was watching. In the summer of 1956, I was only 8 years old, but for some reason I found the renomination of Dwight Eisenhower to be a fascinating exercise. I’m sure I didn’t even understand what the speakers were saying. But it seemed important.

Since then there have been some interesting and dramatic conventions. In 1960 John Kennedy was the favorite among Democrats, but there were other names in circulation – Lyndon Johnson, Stuart Symington, Adlai Stevenson. In 1964 I met Nelson Rockefeller during the Republican primary in California, and I leaped from my couch in indignation when Barry Goldwater defiantly declared that extremism was no vice, moderation no virtue. After the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 I was too disheartened to pay much attention, even to the rioters in Chicago.

Nowadays the candidates have concluded that drama is bad. It says that the candidate lacks control. The candidate who can script the convention down to the minute will show he can manage the game of politics, even if it’s a game of meaningless
spectacle and deceptive image-making.

So instead of watching to see what surprising events occur, we watch in the manner of the TV critic, hoping to dissect the meaning of the imagery, or the lack of meaning.

The Democrats are so hungry for a victory over George Bush that they are not likely to make trouble for Kerry at the convention. The question people have is whether Kerry can carry off the role of candidate in convincing fashion.

So we tune in to determine if Kerry has learned to smile and to assess the color of his tie, as much as to hear what he plans to do in Iraq.

Dissent used to be possible. Remember when Ronald Reagan challenged the incumbent, Gerald Ford? And Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter? Can anyone imagine a Republican daring to challenge George Bush? They’d squash him in a minute.

Democrats are falling into line, too, exercising uncharacteristic discipline in their determination to beat George Bush.

Still, those droning speeches in the summer of ’56, when the Republicans were renominating Dwight Eisenhower, probably had more meaning and integrity than the slick showmanship of today.

But I’ll tune in next week. I love to hear the roll call of the states. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona… By the time they get to Vermont, it will all be decided.

But that’s all right. It’s not for the drama that we tune in. It’s because for now democracy has taken this peculiar shape, and it’s important to pay attention. All the way up to Wisconsin and Wyoming.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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